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Gothicism to Transcendentalism: The Birth of a Nation’s Culture

Gothicism to Transcendentalism: The Birth of a Nation’s Culture
© Photograph by Robert Stebler

It is not surprising that the Gothic novel was the literary genre that emerged as the only one likely to be that of the United States of America, if we consider that its archetype, ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764), by Horatio Walpole, inspired a universe of fiction, which was especially in vogue in England during the second part of the eighteenth-century, and it was from the British Crown that the thirteen colonies took their independence during the same time. It leads one to suppose that politics overrides the reader’s sensitivity and imagination and that a young nation takes more time to develop an original culture than to endow a constitution. Thus, even after the Revolution, the United States of America continued under the strong influence of British Civilisation.

A problem that we must consider is whether the Gothic atmosphere could be transposed or take root in North America, in a virgin land, not in the sense that there was no culture in it, seeing that American Indians had filled these regions with their own traditions and legends, but that the characteristics of this novelistic genre did not really exist in North American society. Seemingly there was no ancestral fortress, no decadent aristocracy, no tyrannical religion, no age-old legend in existence to serve as the settling for that medieval world that is necessary for the growth of Gothic.

Indeed, a great number of Gothic stories consisted of the sudden emergence, or rather resurgence, in modernity, of an archaism that came from the Dark Ages, for which there was no apparent equivalent in the New World. But this interpretation is perhaps too simple, and this literary acclimatisation might be the better way to understand North American society at its origin, to grasp its relative complexity, and to gather the scattered and sometimes contradictory elements of the culture of a budding nation. I would particularly like just to connect the birth of this literature to a more original aspect of North American creation at the time: Transcendentalism. I will probe two questions: what was the novelty of the American Gothic novel in its early stages, and what relationship could be established between it and Transcendentalism, the first original and major intellectual movement in North America?

The plot of a traditional Gothic novel needs, at its basis, the figure of an oppressor. In ‘Wieland’ (1798), by Charles Brockden Brown, which is the first American Gothic novel, this function is personified by the character of Carwin. Although he “was an Englishman by birth, and, perhaps, a Protestant by education,” he “had embraced the Catholic religion, and adopted a Spanish name instead of his own.” These biographical elements are enough to make the reader wary of him, for the Gothic genre was the universe of one nation, England, and was thus characterised by an Anglican sensibility. For this reason, the villain is often a priest or a monk from Italy, or even better, from Spain, which is supposed to be under the Catholic Church and the rule of the Holy Inquisition. The Gothic genre can then be partly interpreted as a criticism of the fundamentalism and obscurantism of Rome, of persecutions triggered by this institution. Characterised in this way, Carwin becomes irremediably a “stranger,” embodying the motives of the schism and of the religious wars. The criticism of Catholicism is all the more virulent since its rigorism does not correspond to saintliness, and, actually, conceals vice. Carwin seems to correspond to this criticism when after a moralising discourse that suits his austere appearance, he faced alone Clara Wieland, whom he desires, and who is destined to be the victim of the tale. Moreover, this scene depicts a rare occurrence of eroticism in early American literature of this period, seeing that it begins with Clara Wieland speaking the following words: “I was alone. My habit suited the hour, and the place, and the warmth of the season. All succour was remote. He had placed himself between me and the door.” So, she is half-clothed, at Carwin’s mercy, and the couple forms the traditional Gothic relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. In reading this scene, we might believe that this first American Gothic novel was nothing more than a copy of the European, but there are some distinctive features which appear, that are due to its relocation in the New World. The plot involves more than the confrontation between a libertine man and an ingenuous girl, for a third type of character was introduced in the American novel, directly inherited from the history of the populating of the thirteen colonies. I am, of course, referring to Puritanism.

Each of the immigrants offered a dichotomy of personalities, in the sense that they were torn between the purity of faith and the temptation to fanaticism. ‘Wieland’ thus describes perfectly the epic of Clara’s parents. Her father turned to a great piety, so that his “Residence in England [became] almost impossible, on account of his religious tenets” and that he “embarked for Philadelphia,” where he settled with his wife. The father is described as being “visited afresh by devotional contemplation.”

At a certain point, the reader asks himself why the narrator is telling him the story of this genealogy and of the devotion of the parents because they die at the very beginning of the novel and the children are not raised with that same religious fervour. Clara stresses this: “Our education had been modelled by no religious standard. We were left to the guidance of our own understanding, and the casual impressions which society might make upon us.” So, when the drama reaches its peak, when she finds her sister-in-law and children murdered, she and the reader immediately accuse Carwin, for, in a traditional Gothic novel, he would have to be the killer. But, it was Clara’s brother, Theodore, who committed these homicides. This drastically changes the moral of the story, introduces a break with the traditional Gothic genre, and perhaps gives it a larger intellectual importance. If Theodore became a murderer, it was the moral responsibility of Carwin, who used his talent of biloquist or ventriloquist to serve his designs, particularly to seduce Clara. So, ‘Wieland’ is almost an experiment, for it relates the subjection of a puritanical family to the phenomenon of hearing voices. So puritans does not really take the place of monks, priests and aristocrats, who were characters from old Europe, for they were impossible to adapt to North America, yet they become important in the renewal of that genre by Americans.

A later Gothic novel, ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ (1851), by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is particularly interesting from this point of view. As the title indicates, this book has as its setting a residence, home of the Pyncheon family which occupies it. The plot opens with the founder of this family, Colonel Pyncheon, a “Puritan magnate,” who stole the land where the house was built; he did this by having its owner, Matthew Maule, accused of witchcraft. What is interesting is the transposition of the aristocratic or dynastic family into the New World. Of course, some aspects of the story are fantastic. For example, when Matthew Maule, at the time he is to be hanged, curses the Colonel by saying: “God will give him blood to drink!” This prophecy is then fulfilled when the Colonel dies, choked with blood flowing on his ruff. But, if at various moments, a trivial situation is interpreted as fantastic, the earth of Gothicism is not here in this book. Yes, we have, for example, the traditional persecutor or villain in Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, who incorrectly condemns his relative, Clifford, for the murder of his uncle, the Colonel. His description perfectly fits the requirements of the genre. However, one of the most important traits of the Gothic novel is that the Colonel’s death, whose description is particularly agonising, releases his relatives, Hepzibah and Clifford, from the curse described throughout that causes them to be prisoners of the house, of a malediction, of their family, etc. The old Clifford says to his sister: “We are ghosts! We have no right among human beings — no right anywhere, but in this old house, which has a curse on it, and which, therefore, we are doomed to haunt!”

This retort suggests the moral of this novel, formulated by the author in his preface: “the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and divesting itself of every temporary advantage, becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.” It seems to me that the importance of this problem, advanced by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is only understandable if we consider that the traditional structure of the Gothic novel was altered and destabilised by the new political and social conditions of the United States of America. If the Puritans appear in ‘Wieland’ to offer a critical variation on fundamentalism, these Puritans merge with the old European aristocracy in ‘The House of the Seven Gables’. This is, perhaps, sociologically and historically unrealistic, but it allows the author to develop a founding criticism for the young Republic.

Indeed, there is also an important character, Holgrave, an artist and follower of the French philosopher François Marie Charles Fourier. He will marry Phoebe, the youngest heiress of the Pyncheon family; he eventually reveals that he is the latest descendant of Matthew Maule. From this point of view, the novel can be interpreted as “the fall of the house of Pyncheon,” for there is a reconciliation between two families opposed by their social ranks. But, before he has entered his new family, and perhaps adopted its ideas of power, the young artist states: “Just think, a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times — to Death, if we give the matter the right word! […] A Dead Man sits on all our judgement-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in Dead Men’s books! We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes, and cry at Dead Men’s pathos! We are sick of Dead Men’s diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients! […] I ought to have said, too, that we live in Dead Men’s houses; as, for instance, in this of seven gables!”

It is not the thought of a young man, which could neither be reduced to a problem of the generation gap, nor to a criticism of familialism. Nor is it a political judgement, the socialist stand of a bohemian artist. It seems to me that this speech has some value for the Gothic genre.

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